Keyte J.
Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, UK

Keywords: attachment, keeping behaviours, value, emotion, technology, empowerment.

Abstract: Hardware Hopes is a qualitative research project initiated to explore the personal and emotional side of our relationships with computing devices, by inviting people to tell the stories of the devices they own (e.g. laptops, desktop computers, smartphones, tablets), and asking them to consider how they feel about them. Through analysis of the collected stories I am investigating the ways in which emotion is present, or absent, in our relationships to computing hardware.

Recent work in HCI and design establishes the case for designing longer lifespans into computing devices, to address the problem of increasing waste produced by the fast consumption cycles associated with electronic products. These researchers advocate finding new ways of relating to, and caring for, our devices. The research documented in this paper attempts to understand the emotional and material factors that affect the longevity of people’s personal relationships with computing devices. Computer obsolescence and replacement is often reported and marketed as a necessary by product of technological progress, but the reality of deciding whether a personal computing device should be kept or disposed of is personal and idiosyncratic, and messier than it may at first seem. Understanding the factors that influence whether a device is kept can tell us about the lifespan and obsolescence of computing devices.

Introduction

Hardware Hopes is a qualitative research project initiated to explore the personal and emotional side of our relationships with computing devices, by inviting people to tell the stories of the devices they own (e.g. laptops, desktop computers, smartphones, tablets), and asking them to consider how they feel about them. Through analysis of the collected stories I am investigating the ways in which emotion is present, or absent, in our relationships to computing hardware.

Recent work in HCI and design establishes the case for designing longer lifespans into computing devices, to address the problem of increasing waste produced by the fast consumption cycles associated with electronic products. These researchers advocate finding new ways of relating to, and caring for, our devices. The research documented in this paper attempts to understand the emotional and material factors that affect the longevity of people’s personal relationships with computing devices. Computer obsolescence and replacement is often reported and marketed as a necessary by product of technological progress, but the reality of deciding whether a personal computing device should be kept or disposed of is personal and idiosyncratic, and messier than it may at first seem. Understanding the factors that influence whether a device is kept can tell us about the lifespan and obsolescence of computing devices. Key research questions include:

  •  What are the material and emotional factors that influence the longevity of a personal computing device?
  • How do we keep personal computing devices when our relationships with them start to wind down and end?
  • Can individual items of hardware build up personal meaning?
  • How could design support more authentic, caring and active relationships with devices?

The stories were collected through two events in 2014, with participants from Access open digital art space, Sheffield, and visitors to Manchester Mini Maker Faire. This paper describes the creative methods for collecting the stories, and presents the themes arising from the data analysis. The research builds on earlier research I have undertaken taking a creative, storytelling approach to examining keeping behaviours related to personal possessions.

Contextual review

E-waste: an accelerating problem

The explosive growth of the electronic waste stream (including computers, mobile phones, TVs, electronic toys, and other household appliances) is widely acknowledged as a serious global problem (Vidal, J. in Observer newspaper, 2013). A paper by Step Project (United Nations University, 2014) states that global e-waste volume placed on the market was 57.4 million tons in 2010, and set to rise to 75 million tonnes by 2015. The technical and material complexity of electronic products, and the relatively recent development of the e- waste stream, mean that the appropriate infrastructure for disassembly and reuse is not clearly defined or well developed (Gabrys, 2013). Many products are informally processed in developing countries, where the infrastructure for safely processing e-waste is lacking. This has a serious negative impact on environment and health (Park, 2012).

Dominant narratives of obsolescence The production and consumption of electronics is tied up with ideas of technological progress. In 1965 Moore predicted that the number of transistors on integrated circuits would double every 18 to 24 months, doubling processing speed. Gabrys (2013, p30) states, “This law has become a nearly inviolable principle for the rate of electronics advancement.” The increasing miniaturization of microchips, the pace of technological change, and the relationship of consumption to economic growth means that electronics have become part of a dominant culture of replacement and disposability.

Product lifetime extension

Research in design and HCI establishes a need to design long or multiple lifetimes into products, in order to address the problems associated with overconsumption and waste. This need is confirmed by Defra, who commissioned research into consumer attitudes and behaviours associated with product lifetime (Brook Lyndhurst, 2011). Recent design research identifies a need to understand what motivates people to keep and care for products for prolonged periods (e.g. Chapman, 2005; Mugge et al., 2010; Niinimäki & Koskinen, 2011; Schifferstein & Zwartkruis- Pelgrim, 2008). This research often seeks to identify the characteristics of a strong user- product attachment. HCI researchers Golsteijn et al. (2012) and Odom et al. (2009) have explored attachment to digital and physical possessions, while Gerber (2011) examines the breakdown of peoples’ relationships to technology. There are also calls to design for multiple lifespans in electronic products, and for electronic devices that build up meaning (Odom, 2012). My intention is to shift the focus from product attachment to more deeply investigate how material and emotional engagement are linked, and how they inform a person’s relationship with their device.

Framing the ownership of a device as a relationship is a useful way of understanding a person’s emotional interaction with it. Chapman (2005) talks about the ownership of a product as a relationship that can break down when a user ‘grows out’ of the product, and outside academia the Restart project [Restart Project, 2015] frames the repair of electronic devices in the context of users’ relationships with them. What happens when a user’s relationship to their hardware starts to change? What factors prolong a relationship with a product that is technologically obsolete?

End of life ambiguity

There is ambiguity around what constitutes end-of-life for electronic products; for example it could be the failure of a single component that is the trigger, or the acquisition of new software. Devices are often working, or partially working, when they are discarded (van Nes, 2003 cited in Park, 2012), and it is relatively unusual for a personal electronic device to become obsolete because it is broken beyond repair (Cooper, 2004). This raises questions about how users deal with this ambiguity, when making decisions about whether a device is obsolete. Park (2012) and Gabrys (2013) both draw attention to the apparent stockpiling of devices such as unused mobile phones and computers in peoples’ homes. There is a need to understand the personal, social factors that influence this period of time when a user’s relationship with a device winds down and ends, and to find out how users deviate from expected patterns of keeping and discarding. The influence of consumer expectations on product end–of–life is studied by Cooper (2004) and Brook Lyndhurst (2001). Both studies acknowledge that there is little consistency in consumers’ attitudes to product lifespan. Brook Lyndhurst found that products consumers expect to be ‘up to date’ (including electronic products) are closely related to the “status, belonging and identity of participants”, and are only expected to last reliably for short periods. Both studies identified participants’ frustration with products that break before the expected end–of–life (Brook Lyndhurst, 2001), and a sense of lack of personal control over the short lifespan of household appliances including computers and mobile phones (Cooper, 2004). Consumers are not motivated to prolong product lifespans out of concern for the environment, and Brook Lyndhurst found that participants were unlikely to take responsibility for prolonging product life spans.

Dematerialisation and material artefacts

Gabrys (2013) has responded to the growing problems of e-waste by seeking to understand the social and material factors that influence the ‘ecology’ of digital products. She draws attention to the ‘dematerialisation’ that has accompanied the development of the digital world. She describes the screen as a site of virtuality; a portal for accessing and interacting with the digital world. What we do and create here is virtual, immaterial. We are distanced from the origins and destiny of our material; digital devices and our relationships with them are fleeting. There is a contradiction in the permanence of the material artefact versus its relative, intended transience. Do we have an alienated relationship to the physical, material devices that make digital interaction possible? Are they mere portals, and a means to an end (interacting with the digital world)?

Method and analysis

The data for this study was collected through two events; a two day exhibition event at Manchester Mini Maker Faire (July 2014) and an artist’s residency at Access Space, an open access digital arts space in Sheffield (April – July 2014). Through these events I invited people to tell me about the devices they own, and how they use, keep and feel about them. 58 interviews were collected, ranging in length from approximately 2 minutes, to deeper interviews of over 40 minutes. The devices reported on were mostly, although not exclusively, computing devices: desktop computers, laptops, smart phones and tablets. The quantity of interviews from different sources meant that there is a broad spread of themes emerging from the data. The interviews were deliberately kept open in order to allow unexpected themes to rise up.

Access Space residency

Access Space is an open digital arts lab in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. I collected 22 interviews during the residency, ranging in length from 2 to approximately 40 minutes. The Access Space community includes artists and makers engaged in digital production, as well as socially excluded and unemployed people. The only condition for participation in Access Space is that you are prepared to be an active participant. Part of the ethos is the empowerment of community members through learning how to use technology, e.g. building computers, or learning to use Linux open source software (this ethos is explored in detail by Corbett (2014)). Community members tended to have politically aware, critical attitudes to owning and using digital devices, particularly computers. Over the course of the residency I got to know Access Space members, and I invited individuals to participate in open-ended interviews about a device that they owned. I focused on whether they felt any sort of attachment to their device, when they acquired it, whether it had replaced any other devices, whether they kept any older devices at home, and how they used it. I also asked them about their level of expertise in relation to computing and computers. The participants often had an active and knowledgeable relationship with their devices – a ‘technophilic’ approach. This community of often-critical users is interesting because they are motivated to challenge expectations of use and ownership, and so suggest a picture of how user-device relationships could be conceived differently.

Manchester Mini Maker Faire

The 2-day event at Manchester Maker Faire was structured differently, as a small exhibition of devices, photographs, stories and quotes, for visitors to view. On entering the exhibition they also encountered posters asking “Feel attached to your tablet?”, “Frustrated with your laptop?”, encouraging them to consider emotions they might have experienced in relation to their devices. I collected 35 interviews during the event. The interviews tended to be short (on average 3 minutes 40 seconds). It should be noted that participants were largely self- selecting, as they responded to the material they encountered in the exhibition. The people attending the faire and participating in Hardware Hopes included some with active relationships to their devices – e.g. people who upgraded their own devices, or were engaged in hacking and making.

Considering the role of emotion in their relationships to computing devices appeared counter-intuitive to the vast majority of participants. It was overwhelmingly the case that people instinctively reported on the use value of their devices, e.g. how they used it, how well it fulfilled their needs, and technical specification.

Story Telling

This study is part of a larger body of ongoing research, in which I frame interviews in the context of storytelling, as a way of getting at how people experience their possessions. Some of the interviews collected during Hardware Hopes can be understood as stories – a sequence of events, reflections or memories. Open-ended interviews about individuals’ possessions are a means of documenting personal stories, as a way of eliciting the emotional value and meaning of the devices. The stories consist of alternative, personal narratives that challenge the dominant marketing narratives that shape our expectations of digital devices.

Method of analysis

The collected stories were catalogued and transcribed, and a two-stage coding exercise used to identify patterns and themes in the collected material. The first stage sought to identify where discussion of emotion emerged in the stories, and the reasons participants gave for keeping their device. In the second stage these findings were grouped to develop the themes arising from the data.

Limitations

Although the research was undertaken in specific communities, a diverse range of attitudes and individual scenarios came through in the interviews. As might be expected, some participants had more active and satisfactory relationships to their devices, but in both events there were participants who did not have specialist knowledge about digital technology. In the case of the short Manchester Maker Faire interviews, the method as a form of story collecting partially failed, as many participants reported on their devices as consumers, focusing instinctively on the features and functions, rather than considering their emotional experience of them. This is interesting in itself, as it can tell us something about the way we expect computers to perform, and the kind of relationship we expect to have with them.

The short length of the Manchester Maker Faire interviews meant we received a breadth of responses and themes arising, but it made accessing the emotional aspects of owning and using devices difficult, as it was not instinctive for participants to think of their devices in this way.

Findings

Considering the role of emotion in their relationships to computing devices appeared counter-intuitive to the vast majority of participants. It was overwhelmingly the case that people instinctively reported on the use value of their devices, e.g. how they used it, how well it fulfilled their needs, and technical specification. It was implicit in many interviews that computers are useful tools that are expected to fulfil users’ needs, and are a vehicle for accessing digital data. Participants tended not to consider their devices in terms of their experience of them as material artefacts.

Emotions reported

In the few cases where an emotional attachment was reported (7 cases), the devices were either associated with important memories (2 smart-phones, a 1970s Polaroid camera and a Morris Minor car), or an appreciation of the aesthetic qualities of the device (a blueberry iMac), or the capacity for the device to help them realise their desires (2 phones). The majority of these contributors (6) appeared to value the individual device, although one person said they would happily replace the device, indicating that that their attachment is transferable.

A greater range (19) of negative feelings in response to a device were reported. These included frustration with outside forces (e.g. the companies providing the operating systems) that are mediated by the device and which exert some control over how the device is used. This frustration was also often accompanied by a sense of vulnerability, related to either the unreliability of the device or the perceived power and control of outside forces. Some participants expressed a sense of helplessness in relation to the device malfunctioning, or recalled fear or nervousness associated with opening up a device and attempting to repair or upgrade it (6: 3 desktops, 2 laptops and a 3D printer). In some cases this frustration or sense of helplessness was connected to a lack of knowledge of how the device works. Some participants sought visible ‘clues’ by examining the device, or sought help from outside agencies.

Overcoming an obstacle leading to new learning

These negative experiences interrupted the user-device relationships, by presenting a barrier or obstacle to the user. In these cases the device became a conscious focus of attention. It is at key points like this that the relationship can be threatened, but that also present an opportunity to strengthen the relationship. For example, there are 5 instances where the user’s efforts to overcome the obstacle lead to new understanding, and a transition to a more empowered relationship. One participant decided to upgrade his desktop PC’s RAM card himself. When he tried to insert the card, he put it in place and switched on the computer. The computer beeped and a red light flashed, and he immediately feared he had done something wrong and damaged it in some way. He sought expert help at Access Space, and discovered that he had been cautious and hadn’t pushed the RAM card into its slot with enough force. Once he had taken the risk of engaging with the material components of his computer, and overcome the problem, he was able to move on to further adjustments and upgrades.

Subverting dominant ways of owning and using devices

In 6 cases participants actively addressed the failure of digital commodities as intrusive or alienable possessions, by consciously resisting the dominant forms of use and ownership that are marketed and expected. They made efforts to overcome the anonymity of mass-produced devices, or to address the power-relations mediated by the device (the perceived control
of companies distributing soft- and hardware over how we live and work). These appeared to be more empowered users with more active relationships to their devices. One participant described how she resisted acquiring a smart phone, and carried her “stupid” phone around her neck, displayed on a piece of coloured fabric. Another described how he continually upgraded his laptop including RAM, power packs, hinges and software, in order to resist replacement culture. He also personalised his laptop with stickers, consciously subverting the image of a ‘man with laptop’.

Devices in Purgatory

Other participants reported on devices that were no longer regularly used, but that they still kept (15). These are devices that are kept in ‘Purgatory’, awaiting a new opportunity for use, or until it becomes clear that they are sufficiently devalued enough to dispose of. 7 of these were kept as they hadn’t exhausted their usefulness, were potentially usable, or where partially working and used as backup for another device. These included 2 instances of keeping devices that could read outdated storage, so that old data and memories could still be accessed. 2 cases were broken devices that had been kept, but not as a result of a conscious decision – they simply hadn’t been thrown away. 5 participants kept devices that either evoked memories, or contained data that evoked memories. There was often confusion about whether the device was obsolete, and whether it was possible to access the data.

Prolonging the life span of a device

A small number (5) of ‘expert users’ with technical knowledge and experience continually upgraded and repaired their devices themselves, and therefore continually extended the lifetime of the device. They were motivated by the process of engaging with the technology and using their expertise, or to prolong the device’s useful lifespan.

Emotional identity

There are two small clusters of cases where the ownership of a device (usually a desk– or laptop) has allowed participants to realise their identities. The first group (5) have bought devices that hold promise and the potential for how they might work or communicate in the future. This is reflected in how the devices look, and the functions they have e.g. slim, lightweight, powerful, portable. The second group (4) are usually expert users who continually maintain or repair their devices, and through this support family members. For example, one participant has continually upgraded his desktop PC (used primarily for gaming) since 1997. When he takes older components out, he keeps them in boxes, and uses them to upgrade his mother’s computer. He also sometimes involves his son in taking apart components, as a learning exercise. So through his physical maintenance of the device he expresses care for family members, and cultivates his relationships with them. It should be noted that desktop PCs are modular and allow for continuous upgrading. So as an individual artefact the desktop doesn’t hold an emotional bond, but there is an emotional aspect to owning or physically interacting with it. It is part of an emotional mechanism for realising individual identity.

Conclusions

The collected data builds up a picture of alienable material artefacts that are valued for their use potential and for their capacity to enable people to work and communicate. The research identifies 6 types of owning and keeping that influence the lifespan of devices, and that deviate from straightforward patterns of purchase-use-discard-replace. Digital devices tend to resist long-term emotional attachment and we generally do not expect to keep and use them for long periods. However the study identifies behaviours that contradict expectations of use, and emotion arises in our relationships to devices in ways we might not expect.

Some participants frustrating barriers to their positive engagement with their devices, and sought visible ‘clues’ from their devices in order to solve problems. Others persisted in finding ways of resolving problems, such as breakages or upgrades, leading to new learning, and to a more informed and empowered relationship.

Participants with more specialist technical knowledge were able to prolong the useful lifespan of the device, because they were motivated to engage with the technology.

A small group of participants subverted dominant modes of ownership, resisting the alienable nature of ubiquitous devices and expected modes of keeping. The personalised aesthetic of the devices in the 2 examples allowed the participants to express personal identity. These participants actively cultivated a more authentic relationship with the device, and through this challenged the culturally accepted transience of digital devices.

Devices in ‘Purgatory’ are often kept because the owners are not confident they have fully exhausted their use value, and because it hasn’t been necessary to dispose of them. This is not so much an extension of lifetime as a delay of end-of-life.

Interaction with a device can be an expression of emotional identity: physically maintaining a device in the long term (such as a modular PC) enables the user to cultivate a family relationship, and express care for family members.

Implications

The findings suggest that to encourage users to take an active role in extending the lifetime of their devices, designers need to provide more opportunities for them to physically engage with their devices, for example through modular products that people can upgrade and adapt themselves. This could provide more opportunities for positive emotional engagement. At present, non-commercial initiatives such as Access Space and the Restart Project support consumers in developing technical knowledge of their devices and physically engaging with them. Designers could also seek ways of challenging the anonymity of digital devices, by designing more authentic products that are designed for specific need rather than multiple functions.

Ultimately, consumer responsibility needs clarifying (Cooper 2004) and there are needs to industrial change, and the development of government policy to change the way that personal technology is designed and marketed. The current commodification of technology compromises user agency and we need to find alternative models of using, owning and keeping.

Acknowledgments

Thank you for the help and generosity of the Access Space Community

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